We had a great, great — emphasize great — turnout at last week’s Summer Fiction reception. Great not just in terms of numbers (100 or so) but also great in terms of enthusiasm and appreciation for what the writers produced and shared with the group.
It was not so great in terms of my attempt to inject a little levity into my opening remarks. In a backhand approach, I announced at the beginning of the presentations that I had so many announcements and introductions to make that I would forego my usual practice of cracking some lame political jokes. Instead I would forge ahead with the matter at hand — making our Summer Fiction issue “great again.”
Thinking I may have rolled out the punch line too quickly, I doubled back. “I don’t know what happened to our Summer Fiction issue the last few years,” I continued (mimicking the Donald Trump blather clogging the national news), but it’s been pretty lame. I guess the old me just choked, like the golfer who missed the putt on the 18th hole. Or maybe I’m just a low energy guy (like Jeb Bush). “But I’m here now to make it great again.”
More silence, a few puzzled looks.
At that point I realized I had the answer to the question that had been posed recently on the television news by a politics-obsessed national news commentator: Who hasn’t been caught up in the Donald “Make America Great Again!” Trump mania? The answer was the poets and short story writers. They didn’t seem to have a clue. But it turned out to be a refreshing change of pace from the national news cycle that I allow myself to be distracted by on most evenings.
On this evening the poets stole the show from the politicians. The showstopper might have been Irene Wildgrube’s poignant reminiscence of her longtime friend, the late Hildegarde Straube, memorialized in the poem “The Bench on Main Street.”
Or Grace Walters’ rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me, Paul McCartney,” sung — yes, sung — a capella to the Andrew Lloyd Webber melody from the musical “Evita.”
Or the grand finale, when Rayon Cauthen, a member of the adult education program at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, with fireworks’ force, recited his street-wise poem, “My Life as a Hustler.” Then he asked to recite from memory another one — a love poem. Cauthen, who earned his GED through the TASK program and is now a student at Mercer County Community College, had made a transition in his life from the time described in the first poem. In effect, he didn’t want to leave the audience with only the first draft of his life story.
Writing, rewriting, getting feedback from readers, and then rewriting some more. If there’s one lesson that we draw from the Summer Fiction issue each year it is that writers (of poems or short stories) value that follow-up and interaction as much as they do the original inspiration. The lonely writer in the attic garret is not a happy image.
The information age that enables all that connectivity has also produced self publishing. As an entrepreneur I have always been a fan of this form of publishing. If you believe strongly enough in your book, you will take a far greater risk for yourself than a traditional publisher ever would. And with publishing on demand, where books do not need to be printed in advance — sell one and print one.
The upside of self publishing seems pretty high. Back on May 27, I wrote about the recently published (self published) memoir of Susan N. Wilson. Her book, “Still Running,” opened a door to a bygone era of reasonable Republicans (her mother was Kay Neuberger, a longtime force in the New Jersey GOP) and also presented an intimate look inside the world of Bobby Kennedy (he and wife Ethel were close friends of the Wilsons).
On the day I swung by Wilson’s house to pick up a copy of her book, I insisted that I pay for it. After some resistance she finally relented, but then gave me a copy of her late husband’s book, “The First 78 Years,” also self-published. A commercial publisher would have said that writers’ lives (and bureaucrats’ and publishers’) would have little commercial appeal. Probably true, but I was fascinated by Wilson’s insider recollections of the Kennedy White House and of the Time Inc. building during the decline that led to the AOL merger.
But could there also be a downside to this do-it-yourself publishing activity? Lauren Davis, the novelist and writing group leader who was featured in last week’s U.S. 1 cover story on writers’ groups, attended the U.S. 1 gathering. As she and I chatted she raised some interesting questions about the self publishing phenomenon by citing “Go Set a Watchman.”
At that point I must have given her a look as blank as the writers would give me when I joked (or tried to joke) about making our Summer Fiction issue “great again.” Eventually Davis rescued me by drawing the comparison between Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the recently published earlier draft, “Go Set a Watchman.” If self publishing had been as easy then as it is now, Davis suggested, then Harper Lee might never have subjected the first novel to the rigors of the editing process and the advice of a professional editor who helped turn it into the critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
In the case of Harper Lee, that editing process turns out to be a fascinating story in its own right. Tay Hohoff, the editor at Lippincott who received the previously unpublished author’s original submission in 1957, saw a potential literary diamond, but it was buried deep in rough.
According to a July 12 article by Jonathan Mahler in the New York Times, Hohoff believed that “the manuscript was by no means fit for publication. It was, as she described it, ‘more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel. During the next couple of years, she led Ms. Lee from one draft to the next until the book finally achieved its finished form and was retitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
Columnist Joe Nocera, writing in the July 25 Times, took a cynical tone toward the recent “discovery” of the original draft and its publication by HarperCollins as “Go Set a Watchman.”
Wrote Nocera: “Lee has said that she wanted to write a ‘race novel.’ Though her first effort had some fine writing, like many first-time novelists she also made a lot of beginners’ mistakes: scenes that don’t always add up, speeches instead of dialogue, and so on. So she took a character who was a racist in the first draft and turned him into the saintly lawyer Atticus Finch who stands up to his town’s bigotry in defending a black man . . . Lee still wound up with a race novel, which was her goal. But a different and much better one.
“In one of her last interviews, conducted in 1964, Lee said: ‘I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.’
“A publisher that cared about Harper Lee’s legacy would have taken those words to heart, and declined to publish ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ the good idea that Lee eventually transformed into a gem. That HarperCollins decided instead to manufacture a phony literary event isn’t surprising. It’s just sad.”
But the fact that our little reception last week generated a little critical thinking is good news. Maybe next year I should show up with a red baseball cap with white lettering: “Make our writing great again.”